Heated conservation debate over India's most critical ecosystem

The Western Ghats is India's biologically richest and arguably most imperiled ecosystem--not just a global biodiversity hotspot but considered one of the "hottest of the hotspots".

ALERT members Jean-Philippe Puyravaud and Priya Davidar weigh in on a heated debate about the future of these imperiled forests:

  A cool mist shrouds one of the hottest of the hotspots (photo by William Laurance)

A cool mist shrouds one of the hottest of the hotspots (photo by William Laurance)

Glowing reports on how well India’s forests are connected in the Western Ghats come at a time when there is active debate over laws with teeth that could potentially remove human encroachments in highly sensitive areas.  But unfortunately the media seem to be saying “all is well” in a very untimely fashion.

Reality is less rosy and the Western Ghats are replete with conservation proposals that never worked.

The Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve is one of these.  The reserve lies at the center of the largest populations of Asian elephants and Bengal tigers in the world.  Since its inception 30 years ago, it has remained a set of separate reserves—never managed as an integrated whole, as should be the case for Man and Biosphere reserves.  There has been no improvement in the management of biodiversity and endangered wildlife, and the contrast between wild habitats and developed areas has never been so stark. 

The next buzz is a proposal to establish Ecologically Sensitive Areas.  This idea has been bulldozed by its proponents as the scheme that will save the Western Ghats.  However, it is basically an empty blue-print that says that most of the Western Ghats should be preserved—a consensus view ever since the Western Ghats were declared a global biodiversity hotspot.

  Intense land-use pressures... working with local communities is vital (photo by William Laurance)

Intense land-use pressures... working with local communities is vital (photo by William Laurance)

In India, concrete, practical solutions are proposed every day without effect.  In 1995, for example, Stephen Sumithran proposed a beautiful plan to reconnect the habitats of the endangered Nilgiri tahr that would have tripled its population in the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve.   This plan had no effect on the ground because it was not implemented.

Grandiose schemes in the Western Ghats have only contributed to weakening conservation efforts because they have not been grounded in reality.  Their motto seems to be “think globally, don’t act locally”.